The Washington Post


An Obligation of Equality


Copyright 1997, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved

Americans don't have long to get accustomed to the possibility that they may soon be considering admitting Puerto Rico as the 51st state. This outcome arises from the fact that, largely unattended, Congress is heading toward organizing a referendum next year giving the territory's nearly 4 million residents a "once and for all" choice of its relationship to the United States. The key moment came a few weeks ago, when the House Resources Committee approved 44 to 1 a bill from Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) allowing Puerto Ricans to decide the future of their island. This old question is being brought to a new boil by the approach of the centennial of the Spanish-American War, in which the United States acquired bits of global empire. To many people, 100 years of American sovereignty over a territory denied full rights is enough.

The proposed referendum offers voters a choice among statehood, independence and the existing "commonwealth." Commonwealth, however, enters the contest under a double burden. It has been tried over the decades and found wanting by many, and it is now widely seen as anachronistically "colonial," even though it was a status voluntarily chosen and repeatedly affirmed. Chairman Young said in May, when his bill was passed in committee: "It is time for Congress to permit democracy to fully develop in Puerto Rico, either as a separate sovereign republic or as a state if a majority of the people are no longer content to continue the existing commonwealth structure for local self-government." Its supporters tried hard in committee to sweeten the definition of commonwealth that would be put to referendum. They failed. For now, anyway, the island's statehood party is on a roll.

For Puerto Ricans, the status question bears deeply on identity as well as practical benefit. Closely related is the issue of language; the committee declared that English -- a minority language in Puerto Rico -- shall apply "to the same extent as Federal law requires throughout the United States." Tough issues of taxes and benefits must also be calculated.

For Americans. . . . But wait a minute. Puerto Ricans are already Americans. The issue for all of us is that they are citizens without full political rights, including a vote in Congress. This is the anomaly the proposed referendum is meant to remedy. Whatever the Puerto Rican choice, we continental Americans have an obligation of equality to our fellow citizens on the island.

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